A sermon I preached this past Sunday @ Megan’s and my Nashville church home, Blakemore Church of the Nazarene. The text was John 1:1-9; 29-42:
Epiphany. It means “manifestation,” or “appearance,” or “shining.” To celebrate epiphany in the church is to be turned toward the world with a message, with a word of good news about the appearance or shining of God in the world. Behold! says our text this morning. Or if you like, Look! If in Advent we wait for the coming of Jesus, if at Christmas we receive Jesus as Emmanuel, God With Us, during Epiphany we are given over to the task of proclaiming to the world what the coming of God means, that Light has shown in our darkness, that salvation has come to our world, that the glory of God is revealed in the face of this unlikely man, Jesus. Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! Yes, this is what Epiphany is about, not about hoarding the gift of God for ourselves, like one more Christmas trinket or toy, as if the Gospel were something handed over to us, with a gift receipt and the option of returning it. Jesus does not come to us like that, like a flashlight put in our hands we can either decide to shine or not. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light it says of John the Baptist, and therefore of us, who are called to be nothing more and nothing less than witnesses to Jesus, the Light. To hear the good news about Jesus is more like being awakened from a bad dream by a fellow witness: Hey, its light outside, get up and go out! In Epiphany we are sent out to meet the Light breaking into the darkness, sent like John the Baptist in our text this morning, with words of astonishment, with blinkered eyes straining to get used to the Light. Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. This is what I must say to you this morning: Behold! Look! Its light outside, get up and go out!
And yet, what a strange light this is! This poor, despised peasant, this one born to an obscure Jewish family, this one who committed himself to a life with the miserable and forgotten, this one whose life ended in what we can only call failure; he is the light of the world? The light of the glory of God shines here? In this man’s disfigured face? Do we really believe this? How can we believe this? How can you believe that the Word that created the world is this crucified One, this lamb led to the slaughter? How can you believe that the light of the world is a life that ended in darkness? On what basis do we proclaim to the world that its light, that its salvation is this man, Jesus? Why did you come to church this morning? Why do we come at all? Friends, the only possible answer to these questions is that we have been given to hear the news that this Jesus has been raised from the dead. We gather in belief only because God has acted decisively in this world by raising Jesus. Apart from this act of God, there is no light! Apart from the resurrection of this One, what we do here each Sunday is rather unimpressive and irrelevant, at best an enjoyable social hour, at worst a delusional gathering. Make no mistake, friends, to follow Jesus is to throw oneself utterly on the mercy and power of God, to hope only in resurrection. It is to follow one who plunged himself into the world’s darkness, who took upon himself the darkness that haunts the corners of our world we refuse to acknowledge, who so gave himself over to the brokenness of the world, that it broke him, crushed him. And so the question comes again: what a strange light! So different from every other light we know! How can it be, we must ask, that this broken One is the light of the world?
Our text this morning answers with one little word: Behold! So much spoken in one little word! It is a word of surprise, of astonishment. It is a word that directs us to something we didn’t and couldn’t expect: Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Ah! Here we begin to see. This crucified One is the light of the world, the light of each of us, because in his self-abandonment to the darkness he takes away our sin—he refuses our refusal of the love of God by refusing to leave us alone in our darkness. He binds himself to us, to each of us, taking over responsibility for us. This is what was happening in the life of this poor peasant, Jesus, and happens now as this poor peasant continues to live among us, giving himself to us! He has taken and is taking away our sin! Where does he take it? He takes it into himself. This is what it means that Jesus is the Lamb of God. He stands in our place, sacrificed for us, taking the brokenness of the world into himself so that it breaks him and not us. Once again the mystery emerges. This light shines only by taking on darkness; our sin is taken away from us only because there is One, this Jesus, who embraces it more fully than we do, who owns up to our wickedness and brokenness as we deny it and makes it fully his own. Friends, don’t miss this! Here is the Gospel! Here is a Love so intense, so self-giving, so committed that it goes to the very end, throwing itself away in order to love us, in order to love each of us, to shine light on our dark faces, to say to each us, you, yes you! are precious to me, loved more than you could ever understand. The mystery is that Jesus plunges himself into the very depths of darkness in order to find us there, in order to break open the darkness that haunts us to the healing light of God. Here is the supreme enactment of God’s freedom, of what it means to be God. Here we encounter the very mystery of God in Jesus. To be God is to be free to go where God is forgotten, insulted, denied, and ignored in order to shine there the Light of freedom and life. Behold! The darkness has been broken. Light has been poured in! Jesus is risen!
Let me be as direct as possible. Our text says that John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him, and that this caused him to exclaim Behold! The Lamb of God! Brothers and sisters, Jesus is risen, and so he comes toward you, even today, even this very hour. Behold! And he comes to you precisely where the darkness in your life threatens to overwhelm you. What darkness haunts you? What sin do you bear? What shame or guilt afflicts you? What suffering oppresses you? Jesus is there, already there, coming to you!
Perhaps it is the darkness of loneliness, that gnawing anxiety over the possibility of being alone in the world, forgotten by God, overlooked among the millions and millions that surround you. What a lonely and dark world we live in! All of us together and with each other so lonely! And all the things we do to try to escape loneliness! We work, we play, we seek amusement, sport, drink, sex, love, fame, accomplishment, beauty. Does it work? Maybe. For a little while. But none of these things can finally undo the anxiety that lives deep within each of us. For what is loneliness but that innate sense within each of us that knows that we all stand before death and must face it alone? Who or what can rescue us from that?
To the lonely the Light of God has come and comes this very hour: Behold! Jesus Christ became lonely, forsaken by God and the human race so that you, yes you! would never be lonely. Over against the darkness that encloses each of us within ourselves, there is One who has plumbed the depths of loneliness with the light of God and who now lives to ask about every person and who unendingly takes every person seriously, who takes infinite interest in who you are and what you do in life as the particular human being you are. No one is forgotten in the light of God that shines in the face of Jesus. No one is left alone.
Perhaps the darkness of poverty encompasses you—unable to find work, or forced to do work you would rather not do, unable to meet your own or your family’s needs, unable to feel dignity and importance, unable to have a voice, unable to see a future. Or perhaps the false light of affluence blinds you to the poor and so creates yet more darkness, the darkness of complacency, of greed, of superiority, robbing you of the freedom to give yourself away in love. Friends, the darkness of poverty is all around us, if only we had the ears to hear—those crying out for bread, for dignity, for companionship, for hope, for freedom from powers that give death instead of life.
To the poor the Light of God has come and comes this very hour: Behold! God has become poor in Jesus so that the poor might be given life, so that the rich might be given life by being given the freedom to live with and for the poor. To say that that the Light of God shines among the poor is to say that to them is given a promise: the kingdom of God is for you. The Light of God shines first among you. The powers that hand you over to death in innumerable ways have themselves been handed over to death in Jesus Christ. And so those who wield those powers are free to abandon them and join you in waiting and praying and hoping for kingdom of God. Friends, the Light of God means freedom for the poor, freedom to be poor as a brother or sister of that poor one in whom there is the fullness of grace and truth: Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the darkness of despair covers you like a thick blanket—despair over sin, despair over the future, despair over the welfare of loved ones, despair that a life of joy could ever be possible. When you look into the future what do you see? The possibility of a life lived in freedom? Of a life full of love? Of projects that fill you with hope and joy? Or do you see only darkness? Does the future open before you as possibility or does the future open as emptiness, as simply more of the same? Do you feel trapped in sin? Trapped in shame? Just trapped?
To those in despair the Light of God has come and comes this very hour. Behold! The Light of God in Jesus Christ has come to set you free and to give you hope. If we look at the world or at ourselves only with a human gaze, yes, it is true, there is every reason to despair. For what are we but miserable sinners! And what is the world but a large collection of miserable sinners! Ah, but we have not been left alone with ourselves in the darkness we have created! God has come to us and wants to set us free; God has set us free in Jesus! Whatever you despair over, know that God takes it to heart, that God is with you, making a way in the wilderness. Your circumstances might not change immediately, but everything can become new, if only you would see the Light of God that shines in Jesus. In him there is possibility; he is hope.
Hear the Word of God this morning, friends! The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it! Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, he is among us, even this very hour, calling us to himself in order to give us his Light.
Let me conclude by returning once again to think about this season, Epiphany. I said that to celebrate Epiphany in the church is to be turned toward the world as a witness to the Light. This turning to the world, I want to emphasize, simply is the freedom we are given in the Light of God. When the light of God penetrates our lives and hearts we find ourselves no longer afraid of darkness, no longer concerned only with ourselves, with securing ourselves and our interests. When we are taken into the light of God we find ourselves, like God, free to plunge ourselves into the darkness, free to give ourselves. God gives us the freedom to go into the darkness in order to wait and pray for the Light with expectancy, with hope.
So Epiphany means this: Go into the darkness of loneliness, as a lonely one, go to the lonely and Behold! find there the Light of Christ freeing you for friendship and love. Find the face of Jesus in your lonely neighbor! Go into the darkness of poverty, as a poor one, go to the poor and Behold! find there the Light of Christ creating life and freedom and peace beyond and against the powers of death. Find the face of Jesus in your poor neighbor! Go into the darkness of despair, as a despairing one, go to those who despair and Behold! find there the Light of Christ, creating glimmers of joy and possibility. Find the face of Jesus in your despairing neighbor! Its light outside, get up and go out!
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.